Thursday, December 20, 2007

Getting back into the teaching mindset

In a post last week, I mentioned that I was struggling a bit with the whole class prep thing, since it's been over a year since I've been in the classroom, and how this came as a bit of a surprise to me. I guess that teaching is more of a skill than we tend to think, and like any other skill, if we don't practice it regularly, we get a bit rusty. That's what I'm facing right now.

I'm teaching two classes when I return: a section of intro and an elective. For various reasons---some externally imposed, some interally imposed---both courses are undergoing some not-trivial revisions this time around. So I'm trying to figure out how these changes fit into each course while at the same time trying to construct the flow of each course (syllabus, assignments, core concepts, objectives). And having a hard time trying to wrap my mind around it.

I was complaining about this to a friend and colleague from another department, and she gave me a great idea. "Why don't you start from the end, and work backwards?"

Well. This turned out to be brilliant advice, at least for the intro course. Once I started from the end, the course almost seemed to construct itself. Getting from Point A to Point B, it turns out, is easier if you've been to Point B and know what it looks like. And, as a bonus, I'm actually now really excited about this iteration of the course, and can't wait to introduce the series of assignments to the students.

Unfortunately, the advice is not working so well for the elective. The elective is less "linear", let's say. I have a very clear picture of where the students will end up, but because of the nature of this course, the path back from that to the beginning is not as clear. Actually, the unusual thing is that I've structured the first and last assignments already, and have some ideas for the middle assignments, but matching up the course concepts to the assignments (and some of the segues) is proving tricky. I do remember not being happy at all with the way I matched concepts to assignments the last time around (which was echoed in the student evaluations), and I want to avoid that this time around, but the way forward is not clear at this point.

(Changing the first and last assignments is not an option---I have very specific reasons for doing these two assignments when I do them and how I do them, and I think that these two assignments are the perfect bookends for this class. And the students agree with me. The issue is that the assignments don't neatly fit in with the "traditional" ways that this particular subject is taught. I have to think carefully about how I introduce the related concepts, so that the assignments don't seem so....standalone is probably the best way to describe it.)

I know that I will get unstuck eventually, but in the meantime, I continue to spin my wheels a bit. I think what I might need to do is take a step back from the details and spend some time thinking of the larger picture. Maybe that's the thing that will get me unstuck and get the course flowing again.

Where do you get stuck when you're planning your courses?


Alfred Thompson said...

I also tend to start with where I want things to end up. Usually it works. My big problem comes with completely new courses where I am trying to work out just what belongs in it. Too little and the course isn't worth it to the students but too much and there is a lot of stress. And of course there is almost always more conent possible than you can fit so setting priorities is key. Figuring out how lond to spend on each topic is tough. I've mostly taught high school (when I taught college I was usually given a completed scope and sequence) and 90 days for a semester course only seems like a long time. For college one assumes students should work a lot out of class and if you schedule too tight students can just go without sleep. :-)

CogSci Librarian said...

I get stuck having too much to cover. I teach an intro course that everyone in my classes, at my school, and at library schools across the country say should really be TWO courses. but it's not, and there are good reasons for that. But still, there are at least two courses worth of stuff to cover, and I want to tell them EVERYTHING, so ... I try to cover too much, go too fast, and we all get frustrated.


good post!

Andrea said...

What works best for me is to make daily lesson plans in which I decide which 1-3 concepts or ideas I want the students to remember from that day and then think what is the most interesting way to get those across. Then when it comes to assesment, I ask myself what is the simplest, easiest way to assess if they have grasped those concepts. This usually leads to a more effective class and to a lot of variety in activities and assesments as somtimes the answer is a test, sometimes a presentation, sometimes a group discussion, sometimes even a game. And if I have stuck to my question of simpliest, it often reduces the work I require from myslef and my students if I just go to my fallback of discussions then tests and papers.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Did the students make any suggestions in their evaluations?

Jane said...

alfred and cogsci librarian, you are so right about the tendency to try and fit too much into a course---I am more of a details person, so I am always fighting the detail-creep.

andrea, I really like your idea of the 1-3 concepts! I think I am going to borrow that from you. Thanks!

ecogeofemme, unfortunately the students didn't have specific suggestions (and a few even said "I'm not sure how it could have been done better") in this case. I'm thinking the key to making things work out better this time is to abandon the text for the first couple of weeks and give them some journal/conference papers as readings. So while they're doing the first couple of assignments, they'll be doing some readings which talk about the Big Picture Questions, which I can then use to frame the rest of the course. We'll see how that works.

(I always love it when blogging my problems brings clarity! :) )